Media

“We’re Probably Gonna Go to Court”: Media Outlets Lawyer Up to Get Uvalde Shooting Records

While journalists have already exposed police failures, national and local outlets are also uniting in an effort for greater transparency. The goal, says a lawyer behind the media coalition, is to “get as many answers as we possibly can for this community.”
A Texas state trooper outside Robb Elementary School in Uvalde Texas US on Tuesday May 24 2022.nbsp
A Texas state trooper outside Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, US, on Tuesday, May 24, 2022. By Eric Thayer/Bloomberg/Getty Images.

Brian Chasnoff, an investigative reporter at the San Antonio Express-News, says his paper has filed more than a dozen record requests since a shooter killed 19 children and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas, eight weeks ago. “It sounds, you know, simple,” he tells me. But “very few of them have been fulfilled—virtually none of them.” The Texas Tribune and ProPublica have had a similar experience. So has The New York Times. And the Austin American-Statesman. And the Associated Press. And Texas Public Radio. In their shared frustration last month, these organizations and more than three dozen others, both local and national, joined a media coalition. “Since we were all pursuing appeals of our denials and had gotten lawyers involved, and we’re probably gonna go to court, it made sense for us to work together on that,” Times deputy National editor Kim Murphy told me. “We all kind of wanted the same thing, and all had kind of the same reasons for asking for it.”

“The whole preamble of the [Texas] Public Information Act talks about the fact that these are the public’s documents,” said Laura Prather, the First Amendment lawyer behind the coalition. “The supposition’s been turned on its head. And as a result of it being turned on its head, the media, as a conduit for the public, has coalesced to try to right this wrong.” Following the massacre in Uvalde, public officials repeatedly shifted their narrative of the shooting inside Robb Elementary School and have fought the release of public records that could help shed light on why responding officers took more than an hour to confront and kill the gunman; all the while, local and national reporters have uncovered more jarring details about the actual shooting. Since its formation in mid-June, the coalition has been quietly working behind the scenes to obtain more information, starting with a letter to the mayor of Uvalde. A letter from the coalition sent to Attorney General Ken Paxton last week said it was, among other things, still seeking recordings of 911 calls, radio traffic, calls for service to the shooter’s grandmother’s house, text and emails between city of Uvalde officials, and various kinds of police reports. “We weighed this as a coalition very, very carefully in terms of what to ask and not to over ask,” said Texas Tribune editor in chief Sewell Chan. The coalition’s goal, said Prather, is to “get as many answers as we possibly can for this community—this community that is suffering tremendously.”

Texas is unique in how it handles public information requests, according to Prather: A governmental entity can either provide records, or claim an exemption and seek a ruling from the attorney general. In the case of Uvalde, multiple public agencies sought exemptions for a variety of reasons, which included that it could interfere with pending investigations. Prather anticipates more legal briefs, and further actions taken, outside of the letters she has sent to the mayor and attorney general on the coalition’s behalf.

It’s not the first time that the media has come together in the aftermath of a mass shooting to try to work through the logjam of what would typically be public information. Coalitions were formed after the shootings in Parkland, Las Vegas, and Orlando. Prather said the coalitions in Parkland and Vegas ended up having to go to court, where they ultimately uncovered records they were seeking. Prather doesn’t know yet if the Uvalde media coalition is headed in that direction. The next administrative deadlines, for the attorney general to rule on the requests for the exemptions, are in August, but Prather is hopeful there will be more voluntary disclosure before then.

The agencies’ refusal to release records is now part of the story itself. Given the circumstances, much of what has come out about Uvalde so far has been based on shoe-leather reporting. “Everybody’s had their share of scoops,” Murphy said. “If you’re gonna invent an ideal world for how citizens find out their government is working, people sneaking around and trying to find stuff out is not the template,” she noted. “But that has been the story of this incident, that’s for sure.” Last month, Chasnoff broke the story that police never attempted to open the door to the classrooms where the gunman was, and that it may have been unlocked the entire time. Relying on an anonymous law enforcement source was at that point “really the only option for myself and any other reporter trying to piece this together,” Chasnoff told me, because “all these police agencies had instituted basically a blackout on information.” Another massive scoop—and one that will likely be studied in media ethics cases for years to come—was the Austin American-Statesman and KVUE’s publication of leaked surveillance footage from inside Robb Elementary School.

“It’s been very piecemeal, leaving organizations to hungrily pursue sources and hope to get information from them,” said Chan. “The big picture is of a government that generally ignores or does not comply promptly with public information requests and then selectively provides information according to what narrative it wants to shape in any particular moment,” he said, calling this “a real disservice.” Chan said he understands selective leaking in the context of, say, a political campaign. “But we’re dealing with the aftermath here of one of the worst and most deadly school shootings in human history,” he told me. “A clear approach with clear deadlines of information being available to everyone at the same time probably would’ve done a lot to alleviate the mistrust that has inevitably been engendered.”

Something has apparently moved the needle, whether it’s legal pressure from the coalition, or public pressure exerted by Texas media, or the tireless reporting of journalists on the ground in Uvalde, or all of the above. Over the weekend, there was a “bonanza” of disclosures, as Murphy described it. On Sunday, the Texas House committee investigating the shooting released the most comprehensive assessment of the shooting and bungled law enforcement response—and the first to criticize the role of state and federal law enforcement, rather than just local authorities—to date. Also on Sunday, the city of Uvalde released body camera footage from seven Uvalde police officers who responded to the shooting. Between reporting efforts and the Texas House committee’s investigation, “It feels like the dam sort of broke,” said Chasnoff.

“Outrage is a really useless emotion to have as a journalist. It gets you almost nowhere ever, but I really do strongly believe that these law enforcement agencies have an obligation to the public to explain why they waited 77 minutes to go in,” said Murphy. Which is why she thinks the withholding of information in Uvalde is worth going to court over—even if, by the time the coalition finally gets the information they’re seeking, perhaps a year from now, it might not be all that newsworthy. “Because public record laws and public information laws are only worth the paper they’re printed on if people pursue them. So we kind of need to make a point.”